Monday, September 07, 2009

Transforming our leaders

During the recent launching of the Moral Force Movement, a mere ten months away from the 2010 Philippine presidential elections, Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno stressed that moral transformation is necessary to solve the country’s moral decay.

The Chief Justice called for “transformational leaders” who don’t bribe, cheat, and lie or even tolerate those who do. “We’re focusing on the holding of good elections, the development of transformational leaders. And after that, we will tackle other social issues,” Chief Justice Puno further said.

Sounds familiar?

Every presidential election is a banner year for slogans, for renewal of calls for change or for a new breed of good and honest leaders. During the 1961 presidential election, Diosdado Macapagal, father of the sitting president, promised to set an example of honesty, uprightness, and simple living. His successor, Ferdinand Marcos, vowed to make the country great again.

Macapagal’s promise was good on paper but many of those who surrounded him were not. Marcos ruled the country with an iron fist and established the New Society, his grand excuse for constitutional authoritarianism or dictatorship that lingered for almost twenty years.

The modern-day successors to the presidency were not far off from the failures of their predecessors, in terms of massive corruption in the government and lack of trust of the people in their leadership.

What sort of a person is this transformational leader that the Chief Justice has in mind?

Transformational leadership was developed initially for political leaders by James McGregor Burns in the late 1970s. It has four components: charisma or idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualized consideration. Being charismatic is like having sex appeal, a dynamic, energetic and commanding presence. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is an example.

Leaders who are inspirational motivators appeal to basic values with enthusiasm and eloquence to offer a compelling vision. Intellectual stimulation means inspiring people to think differently or by suggesting new ways of looking at things. Finally, individualized consideration means paying attention to people as individuals and helping them meet their needs.

Undoubtedly, being able to inspire people is a great way for a leader to behave. Just look at President Barack Obama: how he inspires both young and old alike to embrace his vision and his goals. If a leader has good content and integrity and can present change with enough enthusiasm to inspire people, people will likely troop to such leader than someone whose communication style induces people to sleep.

Being inspirational is very useful in situations where there is no evidence or the facts are unclear, or where there are clashes of values or standards of behaviour. Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to a basic sense of fairness to sway the U.S. Supreme Court to outlaw segregation on buses. The facts alone wouldn’t have done it.

Transformational leadership is an exciting idea but it has its limitations. Since it defines leadership more in terms of style of personality rather than function, its usefulness may be limited to being only as one among many leadership styles rather than as an attempt to state how best leaders should behave.

Substance has become extremely important nowadays, including integrity or character and content. The demand is for more “evidence-based” decision making, where to show leadership, one needs to cite hard evidence. You may have great inspirational skills to get people on board but if you do so for unethical purposes, this style of leadership can be dangerous. Cult leaders, for example, are often transformational.

Unfortunately for us, we need more than transformational leaders if we want meaningful and effective change in individuals, institutions and in converting our country into a genuinely democratic Philippine society. We need more than leaders who can (or who pontificate they can) simply transcend self-interest for the common good.

The chief reason why history is littered with charismatic and inspirational demagogues is because of their ability to captivate the masses to believe and follow them. Take Hitler, for example. Unless we truly empower the masses to make political choices and decisions on their own, such as giving them equal access to political offices and freedom to organize and unfettered free speech, our country will always be in the hands of those with money and backed by well-oiled political machines and entrenched vested-interest groups. We will always be at the mercy of the leader of the demagogic variety who combines menace and theatre, regrettably, the paradigm for all aspiring leaders.

Politics in the Philippines is like mixing policemen and pop stars, those who have power in their hands, and those who have the great ability to show off and fascinate the masses. This suggests something must be wrong, not only with our moral fibre, but in our social institutions and political structures as well. An effective and perhaps more convenient solution is for us to transform our society’s superstructure first, before we transform our leaders and, eventually, ourselves.

No comments: